Sunday, February 23, 2014

Maximus Man, Sun Ra, and Klactoveesedstene

By Chet Williamson 


There has been an ocean of words written by and about poet Charles Olson. Here are a few hundred more water spots, scribbles, and ink stains. The specific focus of this piece is the influence jazz had on both his writing and reading style.

Born in Worcester in 1910, Olson is considered a giant (literally and figuratively – he was six feet, eight inches tall) among American poets. The man who is said to have coined the expression, “post-modern,” Olson is recognized as a second generation modernist who reaches back to seminal, first generation poets such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and T.S. Eliot. His work extends forward to reach deep into the new American poetry of the last half of the 20th century as well.


According to Poets.org, Olson was the son of Karl Joseph Olson – who was a postman in the city -- and Mary Hines. Charles Olson received his BA and MA from Wesleyan University before teaching English at Clark University. Two years later, he entered Harvard University in 1936, where he completed coursework for a PhD in American civilization.

By the age of twenty-nine, he had received his first Guggenheim fellowship for his studies of Herman Melville,” the site reported. “Rather than pursuing an academic career, Olson became active in depression-era politics. He served as the assistant chief of the foreign language section of the Office of War Information (OWI).”

Student Olson
Disillusioned over an issue of censorship, Olson quit the organization in 1944 to dedicate his life to writing. In 1945, he moved to Key West, Florida and did just that. In 1950, he published his influential essay, "Projective Verse." “Among other things,” Poets.org points out, “the essay posited that poetry should embody the rhythms of natural breath and thought.”

Olson's ideas on poetics – especially those of “projective verse” -- had a profound influence on a generation of poets, including Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Robert Duncan and Leroi Jones, among others.

First written in 1950, it was later published by Amira Baraka (Leroi Jones) as a pamphlet for Totem Press in 1959, Projective Verse is literally Olson’s revolutionary manifesto on how to do poetry in the post-modern world.

In a reading at the Fourth Annual Charles Olson Memorial Lecture at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester in 2013, Baraka read a piece called, “Charles Olson and Sun Ra – A Note on Being Out.” “If you cannot make the connection that is between Olson and Sun Ra, you cannot understand the topology of that time,” he said. “This essay changed the direction of many young poets writing in the U.S. in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Olson urges the poet to stop using the closed forms of the formal U.S. verse … particularly, stop using the dead inherited detritus of the English poetry – that a new American poetry must be built on the ear, the breath, the sound of the poet. It would be composition by feel, rather than overused inherited, largely academic, usually iambic form.”

Baraka


In 1950, the year that Olson writes Projective Verse, Herman “Sonny” Blount changes his name to Sun Ra, after the ancient Egyptian sun god. Speaking of Ra and his mystical, magic music, Baraka says, “The parallel that tie Olson and Ra -- they both exert great influence over American art during the ‘50s until this day.”


Sun Ra, looking radiant 
Herman "Sonny" Blount, AKA Sun RA

Very much inspired by jazz and the bebop that he listened in the 1940s, Olson was once asked to describe the poetic theory. “Boy, there was no poetic,” he cracked. “It was Charlie Parker. Literally, it was Charlie Parker.”

Still, in Projective Verse, he spells it out: “First, some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the “old” base of the non-projective.”

Riffing more deeply, Olson explains, “Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” He then states, the essential principle of projective verse. It is this: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.”

In 1951, Olson was hired to teach at the progressively minded, Black Mountain College, North Carolina. Poet Robert Creeley, who would become a life-long friend of Olson’s, was a student at the school.

Robert Creeley
Olson credits Robert Creeley with giving him the line of: “Form is never more than an extension of content.” In an interview with the Poetry Foundation, Creeley explained Olson’s projective voice stating: “What he is trying to say is that the heart is a basic instance not only of rhythm, but it is the base of the measure of rhythms for all men in the way heartbeat is like the metronome in their whole system.

So that when [Olson] says the heart by way of the breath to the line, he is trying to say that it is in the line that the basic rhythmic scoring takes place. . . . Now, the head, the intelligence by way of the ear to the syllable – which he calls also 'the king and pin'— is the unit upon which all builds. The heart, then, stands, as the primary feeling term. The head, in contrast, is discriminating. It is discriminating by way of what it hears."

Creeley, who was born in Arlington and raised in Acton, MA, dropped out of Harvard and began hanging out in Boston jazz clubs like the Hi-Hat to listen to musicians, who would become the major influence on his poetry. He would later release two albums on the ECM label with jazz bassist Steve Swallow, Home and So There.

In his book, The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and Arts in Post War America, author Daniel Belgrad states: “In 1950, Robert Creeley wrote Charles Olson a letter pointing out the correlations between Olson’s projective first essay in modern jazz. Creeley wrote that Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell were undertaking extensions of form analogous to those that Olson was proposing in verse.

In particular, he singled out bebop’s sensitivity to rhythm and tone: ‘Some notes on the thing about the project verse … Two things we have yet to pick up on, with the head: a feel for timing, a feel for SOUND.’ Creeley praised bebop as embodying a counter-cultural sensibility, calling it an example, of ‘what timing variation, and sound-sense can complete … a precise example of a consciousness necessary.’”

Charlie Parker and Miles Davis



















In an interview conducted by Chris Funkhauser, the writer asked pianist Cecil Taylor, when he engages with poetry, if he was influenced by the concept of open verse. “I would say that it is difficult,” Taylor answered. “Do you know Creeley's book, The Island? Well, I read that. The thing-- Olson, Charles Olson might be easier to talk about, or Bob Kaufman, but the thing that allows me to enter into what they do is the feeling that I get.

Cecil Taylor

It's the way they use words. It's the phraseology that they use, much the way the defining characteristic of men like Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges is the phraseology. And in the phraseology would be the horizontal as well as the vertical. In other words, the harmony and the melodic,” Creeley said.

Charles Olson in the classroom
At its fundamental, Olson talks about “certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings.” He also explains that the ideas of projective verse is about the “process” rather than the “product.” Therefore, spontaneity, action, and energy replace reasoning and description in the conception of a poem. Ultimately, find your own line breaks according to your own breath.


In person, at readings, Olson was larger-than-ordinary-life. Anne Waldman recalls seeing him at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965. “It was incredible to watch a poet seemingly enact his whole life – from infancy to old age – up there in front of you; very scary, but also moving, profound, and vulnerable. Up there without props, without a script, every idea of text or presentation tossed to the win. Probably inebriated, not giving you any sort of line, not dishing out some message or propaganda, but just opening up his head in public.” 

Here is his poem, Sing, Mister, Sing: 

Hills are grey elephants
the sun is a prince
the plains is an ocean
Bigmans pants 

                    pound the earth, pound the earth
                    I dance, I dance

The prince is astride
the grey hills glide
the ocean's a tide
Bigmans hide

                   round the earth, round the earth
                   I ride, I ride

Ride and prance
brag and dance
round the world, round the world
Bigmans chance


After the Black Mountain College closed in 1956, Olson taught at State University of New York and the University of Connecticut. He settled in Gloucester, where his family spent their summers for most of Olson’s childhood. He died of liver cancer in 1970.


Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com
Thank you.

Resources






























Monday, February 17, 2014

Frank O’Hara at the Five-Spot

By Chet Williamson 

In his short lifetime, Frank O’Hara was an influential poet, largely recognized as a key figure in the New York School of poets. 

They were a gathering of friends really, namely, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and a handful of others. The group wrote and published work in New York City in the late 1950s, early ‘60s.

Their poems were stylistically recognized for their first-person narratives, satire and humor, and -- most importantly – everyday, American-speech patterns.

In describing his approach, O’Hara said, “I do this, I do that.” The intent, he explained, was to capture the immediacy of life and that poetry should evoke the feeling that it is something to be experienced, “between two persons instead of two pages.” Given this simple directness, O’Hara’s poems often read with the intimacy of diary entries.

One of the more famous pieces utilizing this process is “The Day Lady Died.” Written by O’Hara in 1959, after hearing of Billie Holiday’s death, the poem sounds like an achingly beautiful elegy played by a saxophonist at the singer’s grave.

Billie Holiday

The conceit of this feature centers around O’Hara’s writing of the piece.

The Poem.

The Day Lady Died by Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me


I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness


and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it


and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

The Poet.

Young Frank
He was born Francis Russell O’Hara on March 26, 1926 in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, but O’Hara spent much of his youth in Worcester. In grade school, he went to St. Paul’s Elementary School on Chatham Street and took piano lessons at St. Gabriel School of Music (across the street from St. Paul’s Cathedral. He later attended St. John’s Preparatory High School (then on Temple Street).


In his book, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, author Brad Gooch said, “It was through music that O’Hara often chose to express himself, particularly the romantic swoonings of his suppressed self, at the keyboard in the family’s music room or occasionally at recitals sponsored by his teacher J. Fred Donnelly, at St. John’s Church in Worcester. His favorite show pieces in those days were such accessible works as Gershwin’s First Prelude, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Debussy’s ‘Reverie,’ and Dvorak’s ‘Humoresque.’



St. Paul's Cathedral
But he also worked up several pieces that were perhaps less popular but satisfied his own interest in contemporary music: ‘Seven Anniversaries’ by Leonard Bernstein, ‘10 Preludios’ by Carlos Chavez, the piano part of ‘Konzertmusik’ for piano, brass, and harps by Paul Hindemith, ‘Prelude, choral et fugue by Ceasar Franck, Meditation sur un motif de Claude Debussy by Zoltan Zodaly, and Saudades do Brazil by Darius Milhaud.”

In 1944, at the age of 18, O’Hara studied piano with Margret Mason at the New England Conservatory of Music. While still in high school, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was O’Hara’s favorite work by James Joyce. “He identified with Joyce as the Irish-Catholic renegade who had deserted his Jesuit training to become a writer, who had decided not to pursue the religion of Mary Mother of Jesus but rather the religion of High Art,” Gooch said.

St. John's Preparatory High School, Temple Street, Worcester, circa 1960

Recalling his early years, the poet said, “It was a very funny life. I lived in Grafton, took a ride on a bus into Worcester every day to high school, and on Saturdays took a bus and a train to Boston to study piano. On Sundays, I stayed in my room and listened to the Sunday symphony programs.”

A snapshot of the rest of his days reads like this: He attended the University of Michigan, Harvard, and the New England Conservatory of Music. His ambition was to become a concert pianist. Moving to New York in the early 1950s, O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, first as a front desk clerk. He later became an associate curator of painting and sculptor at the museum. Instead of living out his dream at the piano, O’Hara immersed himself in writing and the world of art.

For more biographical information, see: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/frank-ohara

O’Hara was on a first name basis with such recognized painters as Willem de Kooning, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Jackson Pollock. Although he continued to listen to classical music, and hung-out at jazz clubs, the paintings of these artists were a constant source of inspiration for O’Hara and his poems.

Frank O'Hara by Alice Neal
Hazel Smith in her book, Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara, wrote that the poet was never identified as an improviser, but his work often alludes to writing at speed and surrendering to the demands of the moment. “O’Hara’s interest in improvisation does not seem to have been linked with a strong interest in jazz, as it was for [Jack] Kerouac. Larry Rivers, himself a jazz musician, said in an interview with me that ‘Frank wasn't keen on jazz.’ Furthermore, O'Hara does not seem to have been as susceptible as Ginsberg and Kerouac to the ‘hippie’ ideology of improvisation .... to Eastern religion and spiritual transcendence,” Smith said.

In a letter to fellow poet Gregory Corso written in 1958, O’Hara himself wrote: “Several people you know around lately, Kerouac whom I’ve only seen once or twice but like a lot, Howard Hart, and [Philip] Lamantia who are reading with a French hornist [David Amram] as the Jazz Poetry Trio … 
David Amram at 5 Spot
I don’t really get their jazz stimulus but it is probably what I get from painting … that is, you can’t be inside all the time it gets too boring and you can’t afford to be bored with poetry so you take a secondary enthusiasm as the symbol of the first – for instance, I’ve noticed that what Kerouac and 'they' feel as content of jazz in relation to their own work (aspirations), I feel about painting with the corresponding difference in aspiration, that is where one takes Bird for inspiration I would take Bill de Kooning: partly because I feel that jazz is beautiful enough or too, but not fierce enough, and where jazz is fleeting (in time) and therefore poignant, de K is final and therefore tragic … 


Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman at the 5 Spot
Then also, I don’t have to see what I admire while I’m writing and would rather not hear it, which seems unavoidable in the jazz milieu since even if they don’t whistle while they work they read with it. Maybe I should try to give a reading somewhere in front of a Pollock or a de K …. I guess my point is that painting doesn’t intrude on poetry.”

Frank O'Hara reading, Ray Bremser, Leroi Jones, and Allen Ginsberg in the wings

The Place.

The 5 Spot, the club where Billie Holiday whispered in everyone’s ear leaving them breathless, was run by two brothers, Joe and Iggy Terminis. In an article written in the Village Voice, Gary Giddins wrote that it was a “family business, a neighborhood bar at 4th Street and Cooper Square, when the brothers took it over after returning from the service in 1945. They knew nothing about jazz.”

Giddins interviewed Joe who said: ‘To me jazz meant Dixieland – and would have been content to keep it a neighborhood bar except that the neighborhood had changed. The el was torn down and artists and musicians started moving into the lofts.”

Giddins said, “One of their patrons was a musician named Don Schumaker, who held jam sessions in his loft. After playing they would come into the 5 Spot to buy a beer. Late one evening, when the bar was doing little business Schumaker told Joe that he’d get a piano, they’d have the jams there. The second or third musician hired that year, 1957, was Cecil Taylor.

This now famous photo taken by Burt Glinn for Esquire, is in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum. The identifying caption reads: "In a corner of the Five Spot (left to right) are: Sculptor David Smith; Frank O'Hara, a poet; Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan, both artists; an economist Sydney Rolfe; dancer Anita Huffington; and Bill Hunter, a neurosurgeon. Bar jumps till 4 a.m."



Soon the 5 Spot earned a reputation as a bohemian hangout. DeKooning, Kline, and Larry Rivers were habitues. … Tennessee Williams would come down for the poetry readings, and when Mal Waldron was the house pianist, Billie Holiday was a regular patron. Billie didn’t have a cabaret card so she couldn’t perform anyplace in New York that served liquor. She never worked there for money, but she sang there numerous times. During one of the poetry readings a precinct captain noticed her and asked Joe if she would sing. ‘I asked her and she said, she’d love to but the fuzz standing over there. I said, He’s dying to hear you, so, she did,’” Joe recalled.


Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday 
In his book, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, author Joe LeSueur, who lived with O’Hara from 1955-1965 documents the night the poet heard Holiday at the club. In the chapter titled, ‘The Day Lady Died,’ LeSeur said: “And now, I’ll tell everything I remember about that night at the Five Spot, the shabby, unimposing jazz club at Third Avenue and Fifth Street, which for as a long as five or six years was the watering hole of downtown painters, the place to go when they grew tired of the Cedar [another local tavern] and wanted to mellow out and listen to the music of, say, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, or Ornette Coleman. 


The Thelonious Monk Quartet, featuring John Coltrane
"Joe Tremini, a large and friendly man who seemed to like painters, ran the Five Spot, whose walls he covered with posters and announcements of their shows. As to who among our friends was there the night Billie Holiday sang, I have only the vaguest memory … 


Lady Day
"What I do remember, very distinctly, was the excitement that ran through the place when word got around that Billie Holiday had just come in. The table where she sat with Mal Waldron wasn’t far from ours, and I remember looking over at her and thinking how young she looked. Of course it didn’t cross our minds that she'd might sing … [LeSuer] notes that Holiday slipped into the room around 1 a.m.] “A little later,” he recalls, “when I was on the point of leaving, she and Mal Waldron rose from their table and moved to the piano. Aware that she was going to sing, I looked around for Frank. 

"I knew he’d gone to the john, but what was taking him so long? It turned out that I had no cause to worry, for he missed nothing – in fact, the john door he leaned against was closer to the piano than our table was.
To me Billie Holiday seemed remote, even unapproachable, and it was hard to imagine anyone having the temerity to stare at her or otherwise draw attention to her, much less actually speak to her: it was like being in the presence of – not God but Garbo … .”



O'Hara
Holiday died on July 17, 1959. She was 44. On the day of her death O’Hara was walking around City. As he says in the poem, he learned of her passing reading a headline in the New York Post.


O’Hara had written his poem on his lunch hour,” Gooch said. “Later he caught the train with LeSueur to East Hampton where they were met by Mike Goldberg in the olive-drab Bugatti he had bought the year before … . On the drive to the house Goldberg was renting that summer on Georgia Pond, the only topic of discussion was the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s death at the young age of forty-four. ‘I’ve been playing her records all afternoon,’ said Goldberg. Arriving back at the house, Goldberg put a Billie Holiday record on the hi-fi … . O’Hara, who had been silent about the matter throughout the trip, pulled a poem out of his pocket that he announced he had just written that afternoon and read it straight down to its concluding stanza: 
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”

O’Hara died tragically after being struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island Beach, Long Island. He was pronounced dead on July 25, 1966. He was 40 years-old.


Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com
Thank you. 

Resources

See poem mentioning Miles Davis at: 



















Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Black Swan on the “Great White Way”

By Chet Williamson

She is our empress – a singer, dancer, and actress who broke the color-barrier and shattered the glass-ceiling before such things were even mentioned. She was a majestic woman from the gauzy-past, whose illustrious career should make Worcesterites of all stripes proud.

Her name was Inez Clough, born in Worcester “sometime” around 1870. In a career that spanned nearly a half century, she helped to pave the way for blacks to perform on so called “legitimate” stages in the American Theater.

In Notable Black American Women, Book 2, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, the entry reads: “One of the most recent sources of information on Clough states that she was educated in Worcester in Boston, becoming a trained concert singer and pianist. She is further said to have begun singing concerts in Worcester in the 1880s. Little is known as present of her family and education, and her birth date is a learned guess based on the year she began her professional career.”


The bio-notes also report that the reason so little information is known about Clough is that she is often confused with another concert singer from the 1900s, also from Worcester, by the name of Stella Pinckney Clough. 

This is what we do know about Inez Clough, she was born into one of Worcester's most prominent African-American families. Her grandfather was Peter Rich. Born a slave in Lancaster, MA, Rich moved became one of only three men of colored to own property in Worcester before the Civil War. 

Inez' father was Francis A. Clough who own a popular barbershop in town. He was one of the leading men of black Worcester before, during, and after the Civil War. In 1860, he became of the first black men in the country to serve on an American jury. One of Inez' brothers, Benjamin, became Worcester's first black mailmen and sister, Jennie Cora Clough became one of the city's first black school teachers. She was a graduate of Worcester Normal School, which later became Worcester State Teachers and later still, Worcester State University. The school held a reunion in 1886 and Jennie wrote a song for the occasion. The chorus reads: "Welcome, schoolmates! Welcome teachers! Welcome o'er and o'er! We'll hail with joy each happy day. That brings us here once more." 


Worcester Normal School, class of 1878


See: http://worcester.edu/About/Shared%20Documents/WorcestersFirstAfricanAmericanSchoolteachers.aspx

The Notable Black American Women also notes that, “The path of Clough’s career can be traced with certainty after she began to appear on the professional stage. Clough’s first professional appearance was in the production of Oriental America, in which she sang in the section entitled “Forty Minutes of Grand and Comic Opera. Oriental America was the first black show to appear in a legitimate rather than a burlesque theater.”

Williams and Walker

That show opened in New York in 1896, before moving to London the following year. Clough stayed in Europe for another 10 years performing as a soloist and in musicals. She also worked in the English theater as a pantomime. She returned stateside in 1906, and worked in a string of productions starring the great team of Bert Williams and George Walker.

According to Notable Black American Women, the production of black musicals declined after 1909 and Clough sang concerts in major cities throughout the East Coast. None other than James Weldon Johnson singled out Clough for high praise of her performances. In the book, Black Women in America: Theater Arts and Entertainment, Weldon is quoted as marking April 17, 1917, as “the date of the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American theater." On that date, Three Plays for a Negro Theater, had opened on Broadway with Clough, playing one of the leads.

For the purpose of this column, the focus is primarily on Clough’s work in the shows of Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, two productions that put her squarely in the early jazz realm and at the center of the Harlem Renaissance.

Sissle and Blake

Both shows were largely the creations of the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Nobles Sissle. The team of Blake and Sissle were a winning combination in the world of early black stage productions.

Eubie Blake
James Hubert Blake, AKA “Eubie,” was first and foremost, a ragtime piano player who also composed popular songs and jazz tunes. He died five days after his 100th birthday and was quoted saying, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” In 1981, Blake received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Noble Sissle was a jack-of-all-trades. He was a jazz composer, lyricist, singer, playwright and bandleader. Incidentally, the great Worcester trumpeter Wendell Culley was once a member of his orchestra. Sissle was also a member of the famous James Reese Europe’s popular WWI 369th Infantry Band.

Shuffle Along was often remembered for featuring the song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which later became Harry Truman’s campaign song. But, as author Brian D. Valencia points out, “it was the popular success of Shuffle Along among mixed-race audiences and the musical's embodiment of all things jazz that separated it from its predecessors.”


Noble Sissle
When Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921, it “marked the return of all-black musical shows to Broadway after nearly a decade-long silence,” said Valencia. “The last successful musical wholly written and performed by African Americans to be performed south of Harlem had been the George Walker–Bert Williams vehicle Bandanna Land in 1908.”

Note: Inez Clough appeared in that show as well. She also appeared in In Dahomey with Walker and Williams. This landmark show is considered one of the first African-American written musicals to be presented on the "legitimate" New York stage. Jesse Ship is responsible for the book. Will Marion Cook, along with James Weldon Johnson (author of Lift Every Voice and Sing), Alex Rogers and Williams supplied the music and the lyrics were penned by the great poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Valencia notes that “Because of the long dry spell that preceded it, Shuffle Along has often been called the ‘first successful African-American Broadway musical,’ a title it cannot claim … . Nowhere was this felt more than in Sissle and Blake's innovative score, Shuffle Along's greatest artistic legacy, described by one reviewer as a 'breeze of super-jazz blown up from Dixie!' 

Unidentified actresses, possibly Clough
"Its fresh, steady supply of foxtrots, one-steps, two-steps, rags, and the blues induced involuntary physical reactions from both the performers and the audience, as the second number concedes: "When they see me shake, it makes them shiver. / When I do a break, it makes them quiver. / ... / I'm just full of jazz, jazz, jazz..."

More unidentified dancers in Shuffle Along

Unidentified dancer in Shuffle Along 
Sissle and Blake wrote the music and lyrics. The book was written by a couple of actors/comedians, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The show is responsible for launching the careers of Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Adelaide Hall, and Paul Robeson.

In the book, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by
Marshall Winslow Stearns, Jean Stearns, the writers state that, “Shuffle Along made its own stars. A cast was assembled from all over the country, whose talents were known chiefly to Sissle, Blake, Miller and Lyles: four singers from a Chautauqua circuit; several performers from cabarets in San Francisco, New Orleans and Memphis; and a few members from the former Pekin Stock Company.”



Shuffle Along orchestra with Blake on piano
Shuffle Along ran for more than 500 performances before closing on Broadway. Gilbert Chase in his book, America's Music, from the Pilgrims to the Present said, “After the New York run came 15 weeks in Boston, a run in Chicago, a nationwide tour that lasted until the summer of 1923. Of course, it played to mixed audiences in white theaters – which was a triumph for the American people as well as for show business.”
Josephine Baker, age 16

In July 1922, Clough joined the road show of Shuffle Along. One of the highlights of her tenure was the show at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., in which Bessie Smith appeared as an added attraction. In between various stops along the way Blake, Sissle, and company recorded songs from the show on a variety of labels.

In his assessment of the show, Langston Hughes said, it “sounded the keynote” of the Harlem Renaissance. Commenting on its legacy, the writers of This Day in Civil Rights History, said, “Shuffle Along and its subsequent success were large contributing factors to the flourishing of an era that has since become known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Blake said: “The proudest day of my life was when Shuffle Along opened. At the intermission all those white people kept saying: ‘I would like to touch him, the man who wrote the music.’ Well, you got to feel that. It made me feel like, well, at last I’m a human being.”


Though not as successful as Shuffle Along, Chocolate Dandies was also a landmark production in black American theater. The show was the creation of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle with assistance from Lew Payton, who helped to write the book for this musical comedy.





The Chocolate Dandies opened at The New Colonial Theater in New York City on September 1, 1924 and featured a cast that included future sensation Josephine Baker, Valaida Snow and Elizabeth Welch. A young Lena Horne appeared in the chorus line. Singer Ivan Harold Browning played the romantic lead. Trumpeter Joe Smith was the show’s featured soloist. Inez Clough starred as the leading lady, Mrs. Hez Brown, the wife.


An early “tryout” version of The Chocolate Dandies, first called Bamville, toured for six months with stops in Chicago and Boston before appearing in New York. Though fairly successful, The Chocolate Dandies, received mixed reviews.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, “Some critics praised it as highly as Shuffle Along, but others said that it pandered too much to the stale ideas and expectations of white audiences.”

Writer Nadine George-Graves stated that according to Eubie Blake, "production was headed to Broadway, the producers brought in Julian Mitchell, a white dance director, to give it a ‘Broadway-touch.’

This was a common story at the time,” says George-Graves, “the enthusiasm for ‘blacks’ contributions to musical theater often did not translate into economic gains for the artists.”

It should be noted that a spate of jazz bands, calling themselves The Chocolate Dandies were spawned in the shows’ wake, namely, bands led by Don Redman, Sam Wooding, and Benny Carter.

The book, African-American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, states: “With a cast of 125, Dandies was an elaborate musical modeled on the revues of Florence Zeigfeld and George White … .”

The book goes on to describe the plot of the show in great detail saying, “It recognizes the performance legacy of blackface minstrelsy and also pokes fun at it, as in Sissle’s lyrics for the most overtly minstrelsy-influenced number, ‘Sons of Old Black Joe:’ ‘Though we’re a dusky hue, let us say to you / We’re proud of your complexion.’”

Chocolate Dandies closed in May of 1925, after 96 shows, at a loss of $60,000. Still, according to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Blake considered the show among his finest work.
Unidentified black actors in blackface with Josephine Baker

Gates and Brooks Higginbotham also note that, “Sissle and Blake were able to create a musical comedy that was enjoyable, but also mildly critical of musical theater’s racist history.” The authors also note that the cast reflected “some of the greatest performers of their day” including Inez Clough.

Though she is highly touted elsewhere and went on to star in a host of other theater productions, Clough is not singled out for her performance in The Chocolate Dandies.

Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960 stated this about her: “She was an outstanding and versatile actress-singer of the concert, musical, vaudeville and dramatic stage, who appeared in several landmark shows during her long career.” 

Clough retired from show business in the late 1920s. She died of peritonitis on November 24, 1933, in the Cook County Hospital in Chicago after a long illness. Honoring her memory, the writers state: “Her career is a demonstration of talent and perseverance in the face of the great obstacles that were placed in the way of black actors and actresses. She was instrumental in establishing acting in the legitimate theater as a possible option for African-Americans.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com
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